Sunday, June 22, 2008

Compound Interest

The pneumatic cylinder hissed its displeasure as it caught the weight of the door. A doctor’s sterile white cloak disappeared into the hallway as the barrier crept closed. Earnest L Whittington took pleasure in such repetitive things. The closing apparatus performed flawlessly while not a single person noticed the contribution, except Earnest. At a time when plenty of thoughts weighed heavy on his mind he dismissed them completely in favor of watching mundane mechanicals perform repetitive work. He himself could not begin to explain the unnatural manner in which his mind worked, but had managed to harness his preoccupation for all things mechanical into something useful. He chuckled as he recalled having been told of the improbability of a man simply listening to an engine and diagnosing which cylinder fired out of sequence.

Soon Dr. Horton would return with the test results in his hand, and Earnest would again leave frustrated, no closer to understanding his persistent ailment. The doctor would read the mumbo-jumbo in his pathetic, inflection-challenged voice.

He waved the chart above his head as if he were Moses returning from the mountain. His enthusiasm indicated that somehow decoding the chicken scratches on the page would miraculously change his patient’s quality of life. His voice struck with the finesse of a four inch needle in the buttocks. Though painful, Earnest promised he would give his friend a chance before he seized the opportunity to speak his own mind.

Earnest and Dr. Leonard Horton had been close friends for many years. Almost fifteen years had passed since the young intern’s car stalled in the middle lane during morning rush hour. Earnest, behind the wheel of his tow-truck, hurried towards his automotive shop as an unexpected detour on Fourth Street had already put him behind schedule. Long before he could see the cause he watched the harried drivers steering to either side of the unidentified obstruction ahead. As he eased the large truck into the right lane he reached down for his coffee. When his eyes returned to the busy street they widened as a man stood squarely in the middle of his lane waving his arms in a crisscross motion above his head. Earnest jammed the brake pedal to the floor, but despite his effort the gap between his bumper and the man steadily closed. He whispered a prayer for an opening in the adjacent lane and swerved in order to avoid the man. Breathing easier he brushed the remaining drops of coffee from his shirt and leaned out his window to voice his frustration.

“Ya fricken nut! Get outta the road!”

The tow-truck had traveled less than two blocks before changing course to assist the stranded motorist. Business had been slow, and he hoped the man wouldn’t have the audacity to ask him to tow the car to a competitor’s garage.

A couple of hours later Earnest had the well-used Mercedes back on the road. The doctor, impressed by the prompt service and unusual circumstances, insisted on making the check out for an additional hundred dollars. He claimed Earnest had been a Good Samaritan of sorts and earned every cent.

“Do you have any questions about the test results, Ernie?”

“Just what makes doctors so smug; pretending to know everything? ‘A hell I don’t what’s wrong with ya, Earnest’ reply, would be appreciated!”

Earnest lip parted as if he wished to continue, but a familiar feeling came over him as his lungs did not fill with air.

“Are you finished Ernie? If you’re dissatisfied, you should seek other services. Considering it was more than a year ago I suggested you see a pulmonary specialist! I continue to see you because you’re my friend and I enjoy your company. As a doctor, I’m doing you no good.”

Earnest’s lungs had partially recovered allowing him to speak in a raspy voice.

“Why did you bring that broken down old Mercedes to me instead of a transmission repair shop after I had already diagnosed transmission trouble? It’s simple—because you trusted me, precisely the same reason I come to you.”

“It’s not the same Ernie. The human body and cars are not the same at all.”

“Bullshit… deal in hearts and livers and I deal in timing chains and spark plug gaps. When I suspect fuel system trouble I don’t run a diagnostic check on your brake system. It’s almost as though you don’t want to find out what’s wrong!”

The doctor stroked his graying goatee while giving careful consideration to the words that had lingered on his tongue for many months.

“You want my honest opinion? You have congestive heart failure and since you haven’t visited a specialist and been formally diagnosed and treated. I’d give you no more than a couple of good years. Ernie, don’t you understand? I hoped you would visit another doctor.”

“Boy Leonard, you may know medicine, but your people-skills could use a little polish. You’ve got to ease a man into the idea he’s dying.”

Dr. Horton allowed his disgust to push his head from side to side while he released a heavy sigh.

“You accuse me of sugarcoating your diagnosis and now you say I lack bedside-manner. What is it you want me from, Ernie?”

“A friend, Leonard, and a fine one you turn out to be. Maybe my foot should have found the accelerator instead of the brake fifteen years ago! I’ll see myself out. Think I’ll head home, pull up an easy-chair, and wait to die alone.”

The front brakes squealed as the doctor brought the Mercedes to a halt in front of the trailer. It had been nine long months since the Mercedes had been in for maintenance, the exact amount of time since Ernie had closed up his repair shop. Leonard felt as though somehow he would be betraying his friend if he went elsewhere. He slammed his fist into the center of the steering wheel, frustrated that he had honored Ernie’s last words; most likely he had died alone.

Leonard regretted that his presence, even now had not been of his own accord. He had received a call from a neighbor, voicing her concern over the growing stack of newspapers outside Ernie’s trailer. She apologized for bothering the doctor, but admitted she didn’t know who to contact. As far as Leonard could recall Ernie had no relatives, at least that he spoke of.

He locked his car and reluctantly began the unceremonious walk to the door. The lack of any filtered light peeking through the curtains didn’t bode well for the situation. After two sets of unanswered knocks, each increasingly more deliberate, he tried the knob and found the trailer unsecured. Ernie had never seemed the type to be overly concerned about security. Perhaps he deemed the idea of a break-in less likely than a visit from a friend.

He ran his fingers along the interior wall searching for the light switch. His breathing came in short, rapid bursts as the bare light bulb inadequately illuminated the room. Ernie lay stretched out in his recliner, television remote still in his hand. He hadn’t been gone long. The experienced olfactory senses of the doctor failed to detect even a trace of death in the air. Leonard took solace in knowing his friend had gone peacefully, evidenced by the sheet of paper lying on his chest. If Ernie left a note, it had to be addressed to him.

To whom it may concern…

Leonard, you big dummy, who else would I be writing to? What took you so long, surprised the neighbors haven’t complained about the stench, or maybe they did. I had every intention of calling several times, but I suppose intentions only serve to lengthen my list of regrets. There remains only one piece of unfinished business left in my life and it would seem my procrastination has relegated doing this by proxy. Go to the freezer and you’ll find an envelope.

Leonard did as the letter instructed. He tucked the cold manila envelope under his arm before returning to the chair.

I want to thank you for your friendship. In all these years I didn’t bother to do that. I’ve never believed in fate; with all my heart I believe a greater power placed you in front of my tow-truck that day. For the record, I really don’t regret not having run you under.

In case you’ve forgotten, the envelope concerns the overpayment on your first repair. At first I was opposed to accepting the excess, but you insisted. Times were tight and the bank had sent final notice of foreclosure; confiscating not only my business but the one thing that had given my life purpose. The generosity of your deed sufficiently staved off the hungry dogs. Slowly my situation improved and I set that money aside. As you know I made multiple attempts to return it, but each time you refused, giving a different but equally lame explanation.

Leonard opened the envelope and found a crisp one-hundred dollar bill tucked inside, in addition to a large bundle of cash.

This is the original loan including the proceeds from shrewd investments. Pretty impressive for a non-Wall Street type, huh?

Leonard, there’s something to be said for familiarity. I’ve lived my entire life in ‘Comfortville’, driving a tow-truck for most of my life for God’s sakes. There comes a time when we must all move on. Promise me you will take this cash and purchase a car befitting someone of your status. I always pictured you in a vintage ‘Vette’; jet-black with lots of flashy chrome. A hot blonde in the passenger seat wouldn’t do you any harm. Doc, you need to live a little, tear up some open road. Punch her once for me, will ya? The ‘Vette’ I mean! Here’s to open roads and pegged speedometers, my friend. Cheers!

Leonard knelt quietly in front of the stone, running his fingers across the deep recesses carved there. It would have been a travesty he could not have endured had Ernie’s marker remained undistinguished from the others. Ernie accepted a simple role in life and asked for nothing more. While he excelled in his field, he never allowed the world of business to override his love and compassion for his fellow man.

His fingers moved from the name, Earnest L Whittington, down the shapely outline of the ’67 Stingray that was carved there.

Leonard turned the key and smiled as the aftermarket exhaust roared to life. Ernie had been right about more things than he ever realized. Leonard had passed on the blonde, at least for now, leaving room from his friend in the passenger seat any time he cared to ride.


Stacey said...

Oh Dan....
When I was reading "compound Interest", I felt like I was reading into two peoples life/friendship, and when Earnest died and left a letter for his friend D.Horton, it actually brought a lump to my throat...a brilliant post Dan.. ;-D

Dan said...

Stacey, thanks for your comments. I'm still not always sure the reader will take the story as I intend.